Look into any Dykstra hall closet and you’ll find brands like Shein, Forever 21 and H&M. Who can refuse their wall-to-wall, $5 t-shirts? As college students, the only thing that we love better than “cheap” is “free.” But brands like these often use their pocket-friendly price tag to conceal a heavy cost to the environment and other human beings. As consumers, we need to be aware of the real costs of our choices.
“Fast Fashion,” a term for cheaply-made, trend-following clothing, has a drastic impact on our Earth. One cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to make—which is roughly the amount of water that the average human will drink over the span of 12 years. Now, multiply that by the number of t-shirts in your drawers. How many lifetimes worth of drinking water do you own? In addition to the amount of water used in clothing production, fast fashion requires a lot of chemicals. Fabrics like polyester and bright colors (looking at you, neon 80’s wear) are created almost entirely from chemicals. These chemicals mix with the used water, which then gets distributed throughout the environment in the form of runoff. While each of these are issues by themselves, fast fashion aggravates it. Because the clothes are made so cheaply, they are not durable. Thin fabric and poor stitching means these clothes wear out quickly and get thrown away after a few wears. Fast fashion also follows trends, and therefore gets thrown out as quickly as the trends change. To be exact, the United States puts more than 15 million tons of textile waste in landfills every year. Add together the resources needed, waste produced and lifespan of these clothes, and you get an environmental disaster.
Debatably, the high price of fast fashion on the environment pales besides its cost to human lives. Fast fashion companies rely almost exclusively on overseas labor. At best, the factory workers are paid a barely-livable wage. At worse, they are people tricked into factories and held in slavery. For example, in Bangladesh, a country whose clothing industry comprises 85% of the national income, it takes about $330 per month for a Bandleshi to be able to eat and live, but in the clothing industry, workers are only paid an average of $63 dollars a month. Though it’s painful to think about, acknowledging these men and women and their real suffering is vital. It’s the cost of clothing consumerism.
Of course, we can’t completely stop buying clothes. Brands like Patagonia and Everlane promote ethically sourced clothes, but often at prices like $50 per t-shirt. If you have liquid cash flowing, then buying from these brands is a great investment (the clothes last much longer!). But even as poor college students, there is still a lot that we can do to decrease the costs of our clothing choices.
First, buy less. Instead of buying ten $5 shirts, invest in an ethically-made shirt that will last you ten times as long. Second hand clothes are another way to decrease the costs. Holland hosts many thrift stores, including the Gateway Center, which also helps employ people experiencing homelessness. One of my personal favorite methods of decreasing fast fashion involves perusing my friends’ closets. As we get tired of old clothes, we will exchange them with one another. These clothing swaps can be as formal as setting up a “drop pile”/“free for all” area in a dorm, or as informal as asking friends if they have any clothes that they are tired of.
Multiple technological sources can help check the ethical standard of different brands. The free app, “Good On You” allows you to search for a specific brand or category of clothing. It provides ratings based on the company’s labor, environmental and animal standards and suggests similar, more ethical brands. “GoodGuide” allows you to scan a barcode and look at the product’s impact. A simple Google search of “fast fashion brands” also provides a starting point for brands to avoid.
Coming face to face with the truth about our clothing is not comfortable. Giving up your favorite brands seems horrible, and buying more expensive clothes seems unfathomable. Both of these factors make it easier for us, especially as college students, to avoid the truth about our clothes. However, the cost of human life and environment is too high for us to look the other way.